Southern Cal-Utah Preview
Utah came to Las Vegas knowing that Selection Sunday won't provide much suspense other than waiting to find out its opponent in the opening round of the Big Dance.
Other teams like Southern California aren't quite sure of their NCAA Tournament fate and understand the best way to secure a bid is to run through the Pac-12 bracket.
The 12th-ranked Utes aren't taking this tournament lightly, though, and will try to extend their winning streak to eight by beating the Trojans for a seventh straight time in Thursday's night's quarterfinal matchup.
Second-seeded Utah (24-7) is assured of making a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance and has its sights set on a deep run after falling to eventual national champion Duke in last year's Sweet 16. It has recovered from dropping its first two conference games and especially has been on a roll since a winless road trip against regular-season champion Oregon and Oregon State early last month.
Wooden Award finalist and conference player of the year Jakob Poeltl has five double-doubles during the Utes' winning streak after finishing with 16 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks in Saturday's 57-55 victory over Colorado.
Utah trailed by 14 in the second half before a 19-0 run claimed the lead for good. It led the Pac-12 with a 48.9 field-goal percentage but shot a season-worst 31 percent against the Buffaloes.
"The last seven games, we have really come together as a team," Poeltl said. "We have improved in playing together and improved in just going out there and playing our hardest. Even when we are going through a tough stretch, we always find a way to come back and to get ourselves back together."
Poeltl finished with 29 points and 13 rebounds in an 80-69 win over USC (21-11) in the only meeting Feb. 21, and extending their winning streak in the series would put the Utes in the semifinals.
A deep run in Vegas only would help Utah's seeding in the NCAA Tournament when the bracket is revealed Sunday, when the Trojans also hope to hear their name called.
"I know there is a lot of teams that are in the bubble talk that are approaching Vegas differently than some of the other teams that are locks," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "It is a special time but ... we need to get our minds ready to rock and roll and enjoy this."
Some experts' projections have USC in the field of 68, although none of them know exactly where the committee stands. The Trojans lost six of their last eight regular-season games and wound up as the seventh seed in the conference tournament, but they helped their resume with Wednesday's 95-71 rout of rival UCLA in the opening round.
Freshman Bennie Boatwright finished with 19 points and Jordan McLaughlin added 18 for USC, which has made strides under coach Andy Enfield after going 23-41 in his first two seasons after coming over from Florida Gulf Coast.
''We knew coming in we need to win games in order to stay in the (NCAA) Tournament, so every day's a fight,'' said Nikola Jovanovic, who had 16 points. ''It really means a lot to us."
McLaughlin had 20 points while Boatwright and Julian Jacobs had 17 apiece in the first meeting, but Poeltl went 11 of 13 from the floor as Utah shot 53.6 percent.
The only other meeting in the conference tournament came in 2013, when Utah won 69-66 in the first round.